In Live by Night Ben Affleck writes, directs and stars as Prohibition era Boston Irish gangster Joe Coughlin who, when he’s not shooting people, moonlights as a good guy. Based on the 2012 bestselling novel by Dennis Lehane, Affleck delivers a moody, modern film noir, full of romance and doomed loves that is arguably his best work. Cahir O’Doherty checks out the film that follows the Irish and Italian mobs through the boom and bust bootlegger era where they first rose to prominence.
In Live by Night, the new film written, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, we meet Joe Coughlin, freshly returned from the killing fields of Normandy where he saw first-hand how rich men make the rules and then break them over the heads of little guys like himself.
World War I has taught Joe that playing other men’s games got his young friends killed, so with that lesson learned he returns to Boston and becomes a small-time outlaw, a successful hood who rolls gambling dens and local banks.
Wise guys are a Boston staple, after all. It’s almost as if they invented them. Perhaps at no time in American history were they wiser than in the Roaring Twenties and early 1930s, thanks to the moral crusade that delivered Prohibition and gave them a once in a lifetime passport to the good life.
But soon the city’s two top criminals, the mafia’s Maso Pescatore and the Irish mafia’s Albert White, become aware of Joe’s movements and make secret overtures to co-opt him into their rackets. But Joe tells them he is comfortable with his own low-level veniality and refuses.
Then something unexpected happens. Joe falls, hard, for the Co. Cork-born beauty Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), a waitress he first meets during one of his stickups. Emma is an irresistible blond bombshell who returns his passion with a catch -- she’s secretly Albert White’s mistress. If one word of her affair with Joe ever leaks, they know they’ll both be killed.
As dramatic set-ups go, this one is watertight. Before you can say love is making Joe blind, Albert and his henchmen have arrived to teach him the error of his ways by killing him.
Worse, it turns out he’s been betrayed by his true love Emma, who is dumb enough to think that Albert won’t shoot him after she hands Joe over. The only thing that saves him from his fate is the unexpected appearance of his father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), a high-ranking Boston police officer flanked by his uniformed men.
Gleeson is dependably terrific in the role, playing a divorced and distant Irish father whose lifelong cruelty and aloofness has had more than a little hand in his son’s dubious career choices.
But Thomas can clearly see what his son cannot -- that Emma’s only got one ambition for her life, and that it doesn't include his son. Emma tells Joe it's a case of lace curtain Irish looking down on Dorchester, and claims she is offended to her marrowbones, but her real beef is that she’s been seen through.
Gleeson is under-used in the standout role, but he still makes the point that is the film’s main message: what we send out into life is what comes back to us, but never in the way we expect and never how or when we expect.
Live by Night also reminds us how well Lehane and Affleck know the attitudes of Irish Boston. The film never puts a foot wrong when it comes to the codes that they live and die by, or the way they live and love.
When his hopes of a lifelong relationship with Emma are dashed, Joe takes the mafia don’s offer to go down to Tampa, Florida and head up his rum running.
Despite his reputation for being fair, Joe has a ruthless streak when circumstances require it, and soon business is thriving. This clear streak is to Joe’s liking because we soon understand he wants to live in peace, but life has a way of making that difficult.
His part of the South is Ku Klux Klan country, and Joe’s increasingly cozy relationship with the Cubans who ship the run, as well as his affair with Graciela (Zoe Saldana), has been noticed by the race baiters who hate Catholics, the Irish, African Americans and Latinos equally.
This part of the story of Live by Night is the most compelling. What is shown is that the disparate players, from the Italian mafia to the Ku Klux Klan, all live by exclusionary codes that ultimately won’t permit them to ever work together peaceably.
“You just got here earlier than us and you’re running the biggest racket of all,” Joe tells the Tampa city official who denies his permit for a casino. “You tell us that we all have the same shot here so you better hope the people you tell it to believe you, because if they decide they don’t someday you’re going to hear about it.”
In the book living by day is gangster code for the law abiding working stiffs that Joe increasingly hankers to live among, but the film doesn't address this desire as directly as the title implies.
What Affleck has delivered is an affecting and at times fascinating first draft, full of terrific performances and eye popping historical set pieces that help to tell the compelling tale.
But what he might have thought longer about is whether he was the perfect actor to tell the tale, because the truth is with his lantern jaw and perfect hair he spells squeaky-clean superhero or matinee idol much more than he spells Irish mob.
Hollywood long ago taught us a basic formula, that the handsome regular featured white guy is always the hero. But Live by Night tries to dirty up Affleck’s image by giving us a deeply complex and contradictory character with a cruel side that he just cannot convincingly pull off.
Luckily our hero is shown doing good more often than evil, and when he isn’t he’s wrestling with his conscience he’s wrestling with his heart. At this he is always at his most believable.
It’s when Joe is meeting the mob in back street speakeasies that Affleck is hard to believe. Or when he wears a zoot suit that in truth is wearing him. Affleck’s Batman physique was still in evidence when he signed up for Live by Night, so what we get is a distracting slice of beefcake when what we probably need is a sliver of street tough.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t successful. It reminds us that Affleck can be an effective and affecting film star. He also knows how to frame a scene and write compelling dialogue. Live by Night is also arguably his best film.
Where Joe’s instincts have failed, him is in his decision to place himself at the center of this journey from repentance to redemption tale. We simply find it hard to believe that someone this corn fed and well-formed could have known a life this bleak and blistering.
By the film’s end, despite an impressive body count, there’s not a scratch on Joe. Even when his getaway car is riddled with bullets he escapes in once piece.
I’ve heard of the luck of the Irish and even the devil’s luck, but his strains all credulity. It’s a shame, because the story the film tells is almost always riveting.